Political Shifts and Grassroots Democracy: Ghana's decentralization in 1988

Stories and facts

In 1988, the main political focus for the Provisional National Defence Council (PNDC) and the Ghanaian public was the implementation of the government's decentralization program and the elections to the new District Assemblies (DAs).

This move was initiated by Jerry John Rawlings, who, in a speech marking his fifth year in power in January 1987, had announced plans for decentralization. These plans included promises of elections for the DAs and a national debate on the Economic Recovery Program (ERP). While the ERP debate did not materialize, discussions on the elections and the DAs did proceed.

The local government elections introduced significant reforms. Notably, no cash deposits were required from candidates for district-level elections, and illiteracy in English was no longer a disqualification.

To accommodate non-English speakers and make assembly debates accessible, local languages could be used in the DAs. The elections were nonpartisan, maintaining the ban on political parties. However, the implementation of the decentralization program and the preparation for district elections did not entirely quell opposition or address all public discontent with the government.

By 1988, there was uncertainty about the political structures and institutions that would be established above the DAs at regional and national levels. It was unclear whether the creation of the DAs was intended to broaden civilian support for the PNDC and legitimize its rule indefinitely.

Some critics felt that the term "provisional" in the regime's name had become meaningless after five years in power. Many viewed the proposed district elections as a strategy similar to the unpopular union government proposal of 1978.

In February 1988, Adu Boahen, a retired history professor and future presidential candidate, delivered lectures that sharply criticized the PNDC regime and military rule in Ghana, which he blamed for political instability.

He argued that the AFRC led by Rawlings in 1979 was unnecessary and criticized the alleged dominance of the PNDC by the Ewe ethnic group. Boahen called for an interim coalition government and a return to multiparty democracy by 1992. The state-owned media attacked Boahen's criticisms but did not report his lectures in full.

Ghana was divided into three zones for the DA elections. Zone one included the Western, Central, Ashanti, and Eastern Regions; zone two comprised the Upper East, Upper West, and Northern Regions; and zone three included the Greater Accra, Volta, and Brong-Ahafo Regions.

The first round of nonpartisan elections occurred on December 6, 1988, in zone one, with subsequent polling in zones two and three on January 31 and February 28, 1989, respectively. Several candidates were disqualified for various offenses, such as nonpayment of taxes and refusal to participate in communal labor.

The elections saw an average turnout rate of about 60 percent of registered voters, with some rural districts achieving a 90 percent turnout, marking the highest voter turnout in two decades. This high participation rate indicated a positive reception among Ghanaians for the new democratic institutions.

The DAs invigorated grassroots democracy and local control over development projects. The principle of a nonpartisan, decentralized political structure proved popular. By-laws passed by the DAs had to be submitted to the PNDC secretariat and became law if the PNDC raised no objections within twenty-one days.

Despite the overall success, some elected representatives, mainly farmers and schoolteachers, resented the dominance of PNDC appointees, who constituted one-third of the DA members. The financial constraints of the districts led to burdensome and unpopular taxes and levies, sparking protests and tax revolts in places like Cape Coast and Accra.

In response, regional coordinating councils were established in August 1989 to streamline DA operations and coordinate district policies and projects. The PNDC clarified that DAs had no authority to levy income taxes.

In conclusion, the decentralization program and the establishment of District Assemblies in 1988 marked a significant step toward grassroots democracy in Ghana. Despite challenges and criticisms, these reforms laid the groundwork for greater local governance and political participation.

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